Early Yards at Berwick upon TweedThe justly celebrated character that the Berwick built vessels or smacks have acquired is so well and universally known in all commercial countries as to render an account of them here altogether unnecessary...1Arthur Byram and A.B. GowanThe first boat-building activity on the site that was to become Berwick Shipyard appears to have begun in October 1751. This was when Arthur Byram, a qualified boat builder, moved to the town and and received permission from the Berwick Freeman’s Guild to set up a yard on the Berwick side of the river, outside the Elizabethan walls below the eight-gun battery. The Guild allowed Byram to ‘import coastwise oak-planks, oak-timber, blocks, sails rigging and other materials the town cannot supply for carrying on said business at such easy rates as in other towns of England and free of town’s duties and water bailiffs fees.' The start of shipbuilding encouraged a Newcastle roper to establish a ropery business in February of the following year that would become the Berwick Ropery Company. Byram would go on to develop a successful and profitable shipbuilding and ship repair business. In 1782 he was sufficiently wealthy to be able to have a large house built at 25 Palace Street just a short walk from where his yard was located. Byram’s yard would acquire fame for the construction of the Berwick smack. These were fast sailing vessels that provided a regular service conveying passengers and cargo between Berwick and London. A smack was a type of sloop of around 70 foot in length with a tonnage of 130-150 tons that had a tall main mast and carried a good spread of sail. Cargo carrying capacity was 100-200 tons. Such was the admiration for these vessels that a drawing of the hull of a Berwick smack of the ‘improved construction’ was included as a plate in Steel’s The Elements and Practice of Naval Architecture, first published in 1805 and widely regarded as one of the most important works on the subject of it’s time. While the development and refinement of the smack can be associated with Arthur Byram, the precise origin of these vessels cannot be confirmed. Indeed, some of the earliest smacks operating out of Berwick on the east coast route were built at Whitby. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the output of Byram’s yard (and also yards at Tweedmouth), reflected increased demand for smacks. This trend was a direct consequence of a marked upturn in the coastal trade carried out between Berwick and London. The context for this development was the transformative effect of industrialisation on British society that saw increased urbanisation and population growth. The ability to feed a growing urban population was only possible because of developments in agriculture. Improved farming techniques, technologies and land husbandry had helped to increase yields. To meet increased demand from a growing population, landowners also found it profitable to give greater acreage of land over to the cultivation of crops. The growth in the volume of produce shipped out of Berwick was also facilitated by the development of the turnpike network converging on the town. Landowners invested large sums on improving turnpike roads in response to the increase in the volume and frequency of carrier traffic bringing produce from Northumberland, the Scottish Borders and as far away as Edinburgh and Glasgow for onward shipping by smack to London. Until the arrival of the railway, the East coast sea route to London provided a speedier, safer and more economical way of conveying both passengers and bulk agricultural produce from Northumberland and the Scottish Borders to the capital when compared with journey times using overland coach or wagon services. A range of produce was carried from Berwick to London by frequent and regular smack services including large quantities of eggs (for use in sugar refineries), grain, pork, wool, butter, potatoes and salmon caught on the Tweed that was either packed in ice or transported live in wells filled with sea water. Operators of smacks included the Old Shipping Company and the Union Shipping Company. Both companies were based in the town having been established in 1764 and 1794 respectively. The latter was set up by Scottish merchants. The names of some of their vessels built by Byram’s yard such as Berwickshire Packet, Leith Packet, Glasgow Packet and Coldstream Packet, attest to their owners origins. By 1799 a total of 21 smacks owned by the two companies were engaged in regular services out of Berwick. Such was the commercial success of the Berwick-based smacks that in 1802 Edinburgh merchants set up the rival Edinburgh and Leith Shipping Company that had six smacks built at the Bridport shipyard in Dorset. Over time, larger smacks operating out of Leith would capture a lot of the London trade.Byram continued to run his shipbuilding and repair business until 1789 when, due to old age, it was handed it over to his son-in-law, Robert Gowans. Both men were Freemasons and members of Lodge No. 70 that met at the White Bear on Hide Hill and later at the Angel on the High Street. Arthur Byram died later that year and is buried with his second wife in the churchyard at Berwick Parish Church (see right). At this time the yard employed over twenty workers, and a time-served man’s weekly pay was fifteen shillings. On Robert’s death in 1802, his wife, Elizabeth, took over the running of the yard in 1814 when their their son, Arthur Byram Gowan (the ‘s’ in the family surname having been dropped), was old enough to take charge. In 1825, he asked for a forty-year lease on the yard, to make it worth his while to upgrade the yard. This was granted at an annual rent of twenty-seven pounds, and a slipway was built at a cost of £1,600 to allow vessels to be hauled up into the yard for repair. Arthur also appears to have built several ships for himself, running several from 1850. These varied from small cutters to large brigs of almost two hundred tons. It was during this period that Gowan became one of the shipbuilders of choice for James Fisher of Barrow. The company would go on to own one of the biggest fleets in the United Kingdom (Click here to find out more). In 2021 the company had a diverse and wide-ranging portfolio making it a lead provider of specialist services to the marine, oil and gas and other global, high assurance industriesIn 1867 Arthur Byram Gowan died, and the business was taken over by his son also called Arthur Byram Gowan. In 1874, after gaining a further twenty-one year lease on the yard, Arthur made plans for further upgrading of the yard and the slipway.Until 1877, all vessels built at the yard had been built of wood. However, at this date, Arthur entered into partnership with John Wilson, a former shipyard manager from Tyneside, and they set about converting the yard to building in iron. Gowan was the senior partner, as he owned the lease of the yard, and also the equipment, with Wilson supplying only his experience, skills and knowledge of building in iron.The firm was now called Gowan and Wilson. Four iron-hulled vessels were built in total, the final one being the Montanez, completed in 1878. Montanez like it’s sister vessel, Herrera also built at Berwick was 210 feet in length and 1,040 tons (see panel to left). These would be the biggest vessels ever to be built at Berwick. After Montanez left the Tweed there were no further orders, and the yard closed at the end of 1878. A number of factors are likely to have contributed to the yards closure including the expansion of the railway network and the subsequent downturn in demand for coastal shipping. This explanation is supported by a story in the Edinburgh Evening News published in November 1878 which reported that ... In consequence of the dulnes (sic) of the trade, a number of the 200 men employed In Messrs Gowan's and Wilson's shipbuilding yard were paid off on Saturday. The demise of the business was mentioned in the Shields Daily Gazette of 21st February 1879 which reported that the firm had liabilities of £8,814 5s and that a receiver had been appointed.From it’s establishment in 1751, the yard would play an important role in the town’s economy. Annual output averaged around four sailing vessels per year of various types and sizes including schooners, clippers, brigs, smacks, sloops and small cutters. Following it’s closure in 1878 the Berwick yard would remain dormant until 1950, when it was re-opened by William Weatherhead and Sons of Cockenzie. Other Early Boatyards on the TweedBruce's YardAt a date after the opening of the Byram yard, a further yard was opened situated on the south side of the river. This was Bruce’s yard, which closed in the early 1800’s. Mention of this yard is made in of Bruce's yard in Fuller's History of Berwick upon Tweed (see panel below) the publication of which coincided with the opening of another yard on the Tweedmouth side, owned by Joseph Todd and Company. The list of ships built at Berwick reveals that Bruce was also involved in the building of smacks for the coastal trade.Joseph ToddJoseph Todd, eldest son of Richard John was a cooper to trade who was admitted as a burgess of Berwick in 1793. With the assistance of his then partners John Robertson and John Miller Dickson, Todd established a yard at Tweedmouth in 1800. Robertson was a merchant while the Dickson was a well known sailmaker. The location of Todd's yard was a cramped quarter of an acre site at the southern end of Berwick Bridge. On 1st October 1800 the Corporation of Berwick granted him and his partners a 21-year lease on the Tweedmouth site for an annual rent of £15. In 1800 the river banks sloped and were not built up as they are today. The area on which Todd's yard was located was also the part of the Tweed where vessels were brought to for careening.Few details are known of the vessels constructed at Todd's yard with the exception of two warships, HMS Forward and HMS Rover built for the Royal Navy and completed in 1805 and 1808. Both vessels were designed by John Henslow and Wiliam Rule, surveyors for the Navy. Forward was a 12-gun Archer-class brig of 179 tons. Rover, at 382 tons and over 100' long was a vessel of the 'Cruiser' class with a crew of 121 men. Rover was armed with 18 guns that comprised of sixteen 32 pounder carronades and two 6 pounder carriage guns. and carry a crew of 121 men. This class of vessels was the most numerous built for the Royal Navy with a total of 103 being constructed between 1797 and 1815 when hostilities ended with the French ended with the defeat of Napoleon. (Click on text link above for additional information). By the time that Rover was launched, Robertson and Dickson had withdrawn from the partnership leaving Todd to continue on his own. The end came in 1810 when faced with financial difficulties, Todd was declared bankrupt. Shortly afterwards it is understood that he emigrated to America. On the Berwick side of the river, there was another yard, owned by Davis Cockerill from 1766 until 1774 of which little is known. This same period saw the opening of the Ralph Forster yard at Tweedmouth.Lee and WrightA later yard at Tweedmouth Docks was set up by the firm of Lee and Wright, who built three early steam-powered fishing vessels. This first of these Anglia (SN67), was built in 1889, which probably makes it the first English-built steam drifter, although several had been built in Scotland previously.Sources:Barrow T2000, Corn carriers and coastal shipping: the shipping and trade of Berwick and the Borders, 1730-1830. The Journal of Transport History Volume 21 Issue 1, pp 6-27Evans J. 1908, Recollections:or Incidents Culled from the Lives of Some of Our Seafaring Men. Berwick upon Tweed.Fuller J. 1799, The History of Berwick upon Tweed. Edinburgh. 1 Good J 1806, A Directory and Concise History of Berwick upon Tweed. W. Lochhead, Berwick.Library and Museum of Freemasonry; London, England; Freemasonry Membership Registers; Description: Membership Registers: Country, Foreign and Military Lodges, vol G, #25-229Scott, J. Berwick-upon-Tweed. The History of the Town and Guild. London, 1888. Steel D. 1805, The Elements and Practice of Naval Architecture, London: Steel.Tarvit J.2004, Steam Drifters – A Brief History. St Ayles Press.Walker J. 2020 Berwick Smacks : A Sea Saga. National Maritime Museum, Cornwall.
(Click photo to enlarge) Photo: Billy Swan
BERWICKShip Launch – On Saturday afternoon, there was launched from the shipbuilding yard of Messrs Gowans and Wilson, a handsomely modelled screw-steamer named Herrera, built to the order of Messrs Robert Macandrew and Co. of London for the Spanish trade. The vessel, which will carry upwards of 1000 tons, is 210 feet between perpendiculars and 30 feet beam, while the depth of the hold is 17 feet 3 inches.The Newcastle Courant, Friday, September 6, 1878.
There are two ship builders in this place. Mr Gowans on the Berwick side employs from 20 to 25 journeymen and apprentices. The pay of a journeyman at present is 15s weekly; four vessels upon an average are built here yearly.Mr Bruce in Tweedmouth generally employs about the same number of hands as Mr Gowans and builds about the same number of vessels. The largest vessel ever built in Berwick was launched on the Tweedmouth side, on the 15th March last. It is a handsome brig of 375 tons burthen. On the same day there was launched, on the Berwick side of the water, a most beautiful brig belonging to Messrs Burnett and Thomas Greive, burden 300 tons. The justly celebrated character that the Berwick built vessels or smacks have acquired is so well and universally known in all commercial countries as to render an account of them here altogether unnecessary. There is one boat builder in Berwick and another in Tweedmouth.Fuller, J. (1799), The History of Berwick Upon Tweed: Including a Short Account of the Villages of Tweedmouth and Spittal, &c. pp. 378–379.